A Book of American Martyrs: A Reading by Joyce Carol Oates

Photo by Lena Perkins

For her turn on power, Joyce Carol Oates read an excerpt from her latest novel, A Book of American Martyrs. She prefaced the reading by describing the political potential among literary forms most familiar to her: Poetry being an inner monologue, short stories having the flexibility to provide a slice of life or a moral, and the novel’s ability to grasp and explore the politics and behaviors of a character.

Oates describes A Book of American Martyrs as a novel about a divided nation. It’s the story of a political assassination of an abortion provider and its consequences. Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelist who believes that he is performing “God’s will” in assassinating Augustus Voorhees, a forward-thinking doctor in Ohio. Oates began her reading from the belly of the novel (p. 382), a section titled “Death Warrant.”

The excerpt began with clear, no-nonsense prose that situates the audience in the bureaucratic middle America where the novel is set. There were a lot of dates, beige details, and descriptions of mediocre architecture. These all mixed to provide a third-person inner monologue for Luther Dunphy, who is nearing death, as he’s facing capital punishment for his crime. Every now and then, Oates expressed a grotesque metaphor, startling her listeners out of any daydream.

Oates’s mastery as both poet and novelist perfectly upholds the subject of power—the give and take of power, and even the gain and loss of power. As the chapter ended with the death of Luther Dunphy, Oates measured her character’s puny influence in his world of comforts against the inevitable abyss.

Oates’s detailing of Luther’s grim fate went on seemingly forever. In the novel, the injection looks to have been botched as the executioner tried over and over to hit a vein. In her description, Oates was merciless as a medieval painting portraying the Crucifixion. It was even almost a miracle!

The San Carlos Institute audience members rested their eyes on their laps as they listened, and the silence in the auditorium only enhanced the excerpt’s brutality. From a novel already political enough in nature, why did Joyce Carol Oates read this particular section at the seminar this year? Perhaps Keri Pickett said it best when she tweeted that Joyce Carol Oates’s “tale of the death penalty process reveals powerlessness as well as power.”

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